As Thanksgiving comes our way again, many members of our human family are hurting. Hurting for our country. Hurting from the burden of many years of marginalization. Hurting from crime and addiction and denied education. This week, in particular, many are hurt by disorienting headlines and video images. Each day brings images of people in the streets protesting persistent oppression, whether in Los Angeles or Missouri, Nashville or New York, DC or Detroit. What, then, can we be thankful for?
First, many of us on Thanksgiving will express and feel gratitude for the things we always do: the love and support of family and friends; communities of faith or non-belief alike; efforts to remain healthy or seek healing. But as we reflect on all that we enjoy, many of us will also reflect on what continues to be denied to and by so many of our neighbors.
The anger that has led many people into the streets is put into stark relief by many statistics about incarceration, police shootings, and inequitable sentencing. But the fact that in 2010, out of 162,000 grand juries, 11 decided not to render an indictment might resonate most of all. Tragic as violent losses are, and as often as they befall communities of color in the United States, a greater tragedy arises when we consider our country appears more inclined to imprison many people than to educate them. What Dr. King called the triple evils of racism, economic exploitation, and militarism pervade contemporary society as much as they ever have.
For that reason, I went back yesterday to listen to King’s sermon, “Why I Oppose the War in Vietnam.” He opposed the war not because he hated America, but because he loved it. If he had hate to offer, he offered it toward the violence this country was inflicting upon the people of Southeast Asia. The United States used this violence to prop up a corrupt and contemptible regime. White and Black Americans were more likely to form bonds of friendship in the jungles of battle than in classrooms. The most notable changes needed to bring King’s sermon into today’s context are geographic and topographical, more than social or political.
Racism affects millions of Americans daily, whether they are hailing a cab, shopping for clothes, or standing accused of crimes. Economic exploitation turns King’s idea of the need for redistribution of income on its head. Consider lottery-funded “merit” scholarships that cover the college tuition costs of high-income young people with dollars spent on remote hopes by the families of their low-income peers. According to economist and former Labor Secretary Robert Reich, for every $1 held by a Black or Hispanic woman in this country, a member of the Fortune 400 holds $40 million. To mark that level of income inequality is an entirely American thing to do: The farther apart our richest and poorest people become, the more the tension created by that distance tears as the center of who we are—or, who we could be at our strongest. In the state where I reside, Michigan, a one-man police department operates with 13 assault weapons. Perhaps the only thing Republican and Democratic members of Congress can agree upon is the fact that militarized law enforcement represents excessive use of force. Consider two quotations:
“I think most Americans were uncomfortable watching a suburban street in St. Louis with vivid images of a war zone.” – Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-MO
“The militarization of police is something that has gotten way out of control.” – Sen. Rand Paul, R-KY
Of course, just because members of Congress may agree across the aisle on this pressing issue doesn’t mean they will do anything about it.
As our attentions hopefully turn from our televisions to the people for whom we care most and are most grateful, perhaps we can also turn inward to make commitments for the year and years ahead. Commitment to work against the pernicious forces that keep us from being the country and the people we are called to be. Commitment to study the inextricable connections between racism, economic exploitation and inequality, and violence. Commitment to match rhetoric with resources to build understanding and community on our campuses and in our communities. Awareness, understanding, and commitment must all precede action. The people who are willing to bring about a more beloved community must work for it and be marginalized for it; the people who work against this force have already shown the extent to which they are willing to act. Clouds of tear gas can sting the eyes, and cries of injustice can be dismissed. But facts and truth are stubborn things, and for that we can all be thankful.
Now it isn’t easy to stand up for truth and for justice. Sometimes it means being frustrated. When you tell the truth and take a stand, sometimes it means that you will walk the streets with a burdened heart. Sometimes it means losing a job…means being abused and scorned. It may mean having a seven, eight year old child asking a daddy, “Why do you have to go to jail so much?” And I’ve long since learned that to be a follower of Jesus Christ means taking up the cross. And my Bible tells me that Good Friday comes before Easter. Before the crown we wear, there is the cross that we must bear. Let us bear it–bear it for truth, bear it for justice, and bear it for peace. Let us go out this morning with that determination. And I have not lost faith. I’m not in despair, because I know that there is a moral order. I haven’t lost faith, because the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice. -Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (April 30, 1967)